He looked me in the eye, held out his arm and slowly motioned his hand towards the floor.
Here, one of the captains of the publishing world - a Prince of Print - was explaining to me in unequivocal terms where he saw newspapers going.
“Down, down, down. It’s just too late for many of them,” he said.
Most would agree. As the way society connects has screamed ahead online, the newspaper industry has been left behind. Newspapers are now emblematic of life pre-Apple.
But is the show really over? Are newspapers as we know them doomed? Is it too late to save print?
Plummeting circulations across much of the western world would indicate so.
In Australia, total audience measurements paint a rosy picture of how big media groups are faring across platforms. In isolation, print numbers make for depressing reading.
As a former editor of daily newspapers, I was generally confident that hard work in the newsroom could bring a circulation dividend. That was not long ago. But, today, not even Moses could put a dent in the sea of red circ numbers.
Yes, it’s been a breathtaking slide. But will it plateau? How much puff do newspapers have left?
In 2014, newspaper ad revenue in the US was less than half of what it was a decade prior, according to the Pew Research Centre. But this still amounted to US$20 billion and was the knock-out advertising earner in the news sector.
In the Asian region, including Australia, print revenue still comprises the vast proportion of total revenue for big media players where newspapers are part of the stable. In some cases, print constitutes more than 85 per cent of their revenue.
Dropping from double-digit growth to negative numbers in the course of less than a decade has spurred boards and CEOs to embrace digital with gusto. In the process, they have stripped their newspaper products bare by cost cutting and put circulation in a kamikaze dive by offering content online for free, and talking digital up and print down.
Some, however, believe newspapers remain a solid investment..
Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway has acquired dozens of newspapers in recent years.
Buffett loves newspapers, but, in accord with his famed economic principles, he refuses to continue to invest in what he assesses as doomed industries. While print remains under duress - “even a sensible Internet strategy will not be able to prevent modest erosion”, he said in 2013 - he sees a long-term, viable future for newspapers.
Furthermore, he is damning of product degradation, which is happening across the board with newspapers in Australia and abroad. Less and less value for greater cost, and so the death spiral continues
“We do not believe that success will come from cutting either the news content or frequency of publication,” Buffett said, explaining why he paid US$344 million for 28 newspapers.
“Indeed, skimpy news coverage will almost certainly lead to skimpy readership. And the less-than-daily publication that is now being tried in some large towns or cities, while it may improve profits in the short term - seems certain to diminish the papers’ relevance over time.
“Our goal is to keep our papers loaded with content of interest to our readers and to be paid appropriately by those who find us useful, whether the product they view is in their hands or on the Internet.”
I’m a believer in the future of newspapers too - and I like to think that’s more than just being a romantic at heart.
For a start, great newspapers are still at the centre of community conversations.
As much as social media is engrained in our lives, newspapers define and galvanise a geography or community of interest in a unique way. It does all the hard work of editing for us that an algorithm can struggle with, as well as telling us what we don't know or didn't think we wanted to know. Where social media tends to reflect or reinforce according to our digital profile, a newspaper surprises us and packages it in a unique delivery mechanism for our daily recline or coffee. Not all prefer this or would agree with the contention, but newspapers are still popular for good reason.
As an economic proposition, many newspapers will continue to be sustainable and profitable in the years ahead. This won't happen, though, without sharp strategy and magnificent management. What has worked in the past will not work in the future.
So, assuming we think it's worth it (what's the option?), how do we keep print alive or at least extend the longevity?
Here's my five essentials. There's plenty more, but this is where I'd turn my attention in a time of crisis.
1. Reduce costs
Once upon a time, a bad year for an editor was when their budget was limited to natural wages growth, a capital expenditure top up and a handful of staff promotions. Today, newsrooms budgets are getting cut year after year. Reducing costs is a matter of business survival and should be a part of the editorial DNA. Cost cutting must be done thoughtfully and in a planned way. In recent weeks, I’ve been dealing with media companies in three countries. They are variously placed on the continuum of change but each has the ability to save big bucks by reimagining newsrooms, making for healthier, more profitable and re-energised newspapers.
2. Provide value for money
Like the man says. Buffett is spot on. It is one thing to take out costs, to maintain shareholder value and to keep the bottom line respectable. But newspapers erode the audience experience by removing beloved sections and reducing pagination. In the industry we call it the “pinch test”. For readers it’s about value for money and ensuring they can’t do without you.
3. Review the operating model
This is not always possible, but sometimes the way a business is run needs to be rethought and recast. Structurally is it right? Is the print/digital mix right? What is the content strategy? Small niche publishers, those without the burden of large overheads for proprietary software, interdepartmental charges and the like, are proving resilient with return on investment still in the range of 20 to 50 cents in the dollar. Who wouldn't want that! What is it about them that make this possible? They are lean, focused and nimble.
4. Stick to your knitting
Newspapers that are clear about their mission and whose audience is engaged should not fail. This relies on newsrooms being insights driven and community obsessed. In short, they stick to their big game and laser-beam all resources on the defined target market. With a wider business strategy and a top game (content) plan in hand, we're playing finals football.
5. Stay the course
It is not avant-garde to talk positively about newspapers' place in the media community, but hundreds of millions of copies are sold or distributed every year in Australia. The environment has changed and this will test the mettle. Instead of surrendering, though, the opportunity presents to refocus. That requires determination, a strategic approach and a big set of kahunas.
There is no denying what has befallen the industry: declining circulation and ad revenue, the closure of publications and thousands of layoffs. However, that is not tantamount to the obliteration of newspapers. With the right leadership and strategy, many newspapers will flourish into the future to serve their communities as they have done in the past.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stuart Howie is the Founder and Director of Australian-based media services consultancy Flame Tree Media. He specialises in rescuing newspapers, helping companies to integrate their operations in a digital environment.
Stuart Howie is a communications consultant and strategist. He runs Flame Tree Media, which specialises in setting up newsrooms for organisations wanting a better return on communications. Stuart has worked in media and publishing for more than 30 years as an editorial executive, editor, and journalist.